The White House has admitted it is ‘aware’ of warnings from civil rights groups that a ban on menthol cigarettes could disproportionately harm communities of color.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday the Biden administration is taking ‘seriously’ concerns raised over the proposed ban of the product popular with black smokers.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Thursday it is working to ban menthol cigarettes in the US by classifying the minty product as a flavor, which is already banned in cigarettes, as well as banning all flavored cigars.
The agency said the move will, among other things, help tackle health disparities experienced by communities of color, with black Americans found to suffer disproportionately from addiction and ill health caused by smoking.
But the move is a controversial one, with civil rights leader and groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warning this week that it will lead to over-policing and more racial discrimination against black people.
They are said to fear that black smokers who continue to puff menthol cigarettes even after a ban is brought in could be targeted by police for doing so.
The White House has admitted it is ‘aware’ of the warnings from civil rights groups that a ban on menthol cigarettes could disproportionately harm communities of color. Biden giving his first address to Congress Wednesday night
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Thursday it is working to ban menthol cigarettes in the US by classifying it as a flavor, which are already banned in cigarettes, as well as all flavored cigars
Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One that an FDA ban would not lead to the criminalization of the smoking product for individuals, only for businesses.
‘Let’s be clear here, if implemented these rules affect only commercial activity. And so FDA does not regulate the possession of tobacco products by individuals for personal use,’ she insisted.
‘And this rule would not make individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes a crime, nor change enforcement standards.’
Jean-Pierre was asked about a possible ‘political backlash’ over the move amid concerns raised by civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, who has previously said a menthol cigarette ban unfairly targets black smokers.
She responded that the concerns would be taken seriously and pointed to the need to pass the police reform bill to root out racial bias in policing across America.
‘We are aware of that, and we take that seriously the concerns that have been raised about discriminatory policing, and so addressing racial bias in policing is a priority as you’re all aware of,’ she said.
‘We were just talking about the George Floyd Policing Act for this administration.
‘This is why we strongly support the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and we need legislation to directly address police reform, even as we regulate tobacco industry practices that harm Americans.’
White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre (pictured last week) said Thursday the Biden administration is taking ‘seriously’ concerns that the proposed ban of the product popular with black smokers could give rise to ‘discriminatory policing’
The ACLU has said the move to ban menthol cigarettes – though ‘no doubt well-intentioned’ – would actually harm communities of color.
In a letter signed by the ACLU, the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and 24 other related groups and sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra this week ahead of the FDA’s announcement, they warned a ban will have ‘serious racial justice implications.’
The coalition argued it could lead to an underground network of buyers and sellers of menthol cigarettes.
Given the higher popularity of the product among the black community, this would ultimately lead to more black people being targeted by law enforcement, they said.
‘A menthol cigarette ban would disproportionately impact communities of color, result in criminalization of the market, and exacerbate mass incarceration,’ they wrote.
‘In addition, underground cigarette sales would be a massive law enforcement problem for states, counties, and cities, since all states treat unlicensed sale of tobacco products as a crime – usually as a felony punishable by imprisonment.
‘In the end, tobacco policy will no longer be the responsibility of regulators regulating, but police policing.
‘Our experience with alcohol, opioid, and cannabis prohibition teaches us that that is a policy disaster waiting to happen, with Black and other communities of color bearing the brunt.’
Black Americans are found to suffer disproportionately from addiction and ill health caused by smoking menthol cigarettes. But the move is controversial with civil rights groups including the ACLU warning this week that it will lead to over-policing and more racial discrimination
The letter pointed to several police killings of black people in recent years, including the recent deaths of Daunte Wright, Ma’Khia Bryant and George Floyd, and in particular incidents that initially started over cigarettes.
Eric Garner died in Staten Island, New York City, in 2014, when a cop put the unarmed black man in a banned chokehold during an arrest on suspicion of illegally selling single cigarettes from a pack.
His death was previously used as a case study to help defeat a proposed menthol ban bill in New York City back in 2019. Sharpton vocally opposed the bill.
Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, the same year during an arrest for allegedly stealing a box of cigarillos from a store.
‘A number of police encounters resulting in tragic deaths are linked to police enforcement of tobacco laws: Eric Garner, killed by a police chokehold, was illegally selling ‘loosie’ cigarettes, and Michael Brown was killed after being suspected of stealing a box of cigarillos,’ the letter reads.
‘Even in the case of George Floyd, police were called to investigate a counterfeit bill used to purchase cigarettes.’
Rev. Al Sharpton has previously said a ban unfairly targets black smokers and fought against a ban in NYC
The letter asked HHS to better fund youth education, smoking cessation programs and healthcare programs for communities of color instead.
‘We agree with those who want to see even more progress in addressing the health needs of communities of color and support policies that would achieve those goals without threatening the progress we have begun in making criminal justice reform a reality,’ the letter said.
The FDA announced the move to ban the product Thursday saying it would save hundreds of thousands of lives.
It argued that banning the product would help reduce racial disparities in health.
‘We will save save hundreds of thousands of lives and prevent future generations from becoming addicted smokers,’ said Dr. Janet Woodcock, the FDA’s acting commissioner.
The announcement, which had been expected, came as the agency faced a deadline to respond to a federal lawsuit from public health groups seeking the ban.
The ACLU argued that the ban could lead to an underground network of buyers and sellers of menthol cigarettes which would, in turn, lead to more black people being targeted by law enforcement. Eric Garner (above) died during an arrest on suspicion of illegally selling single cigarettes from a pack
‘Even in the case of George Floyd, police were called to investigate a counterfeit bill used to purchase cigarettes,’ the ACLU said. Floyd pictured above
FDA data states that 19.5 million Americans are menthol cigarette smokers.
Among African-American smokers, 85.8 per cent smoke menthols.
It is estimated that around 85.8 percent of black smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to 46 per cent of Latino smokers, 39 per cent of Asian smokers and 28.7 percent of white smokers.
Meanwhile, CDC data shows that black people smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking later in life than white smokers, but are more likely to die from tobacco-related illnesses.
Antismoking groups and some civil rights groups have been pressuring the federal government to make the move for some time.
They argue that the tobacco industry has aggressively targeted black communities when pushing the mint flavored smokes calling this a social justice issue.
The FDA said it hopes to have the ban in place within a year as it must now go through a long process including seeking public comments.
It could rumble on for several years if big tobacco companies make legal objections.